Cross-examining UK rape laws

Saturday 13 October, 17:3018:45, Frobisher Auditorium 1Identity wars: Feminism after #MeToo


How good are the UK’s rape laws? For years, activists have claimed that the criminal-justice system is unfair to complainants in rape cases.

However, the flip side of this is that innocent men are being wrongly accused and even imprisoned. The director of public prosecutions, Alison Saunders, announced her resignation after it was revealed that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) was reviewing hundreds of potentially wrongful rape convictions. Several high-profile cases, including that of 22-year-old student Liam Allan, who spent two years on bail after being falsely accused, have shone a light on problems within the CPS. A failure to review evidence properly, and a desire to drive up conviction rates, has led some to believe that rape laws have been mishandled and are consequently threatening the liberty of innocent men.

How could this have happened? Some argue that after #MeToo, a focus on believing the victim has skewed fairness in rape trials. After a case in Northern Ireland, in which two rugby players were acquitted of charges brought against them, activists took to the streets to protest the judgement. Using #IBelieveHer signs, some argued that the courts had failed to uphold justice by not believing the woman’s claims. This echoes previous sentiments for the need to ‘believe the victim’, with campaigners calling for anonymity and protection of witnesses and claimants in rape cases.

Is the current law doing a good job of preventing rape from happening? The Metropolitan Police and the CPS have published statistics which seem to suggest that the frequency of rape is increasing. However, others argue that the percentage of those allegations resulting in a prosecution shows that rape is not on the rise, and that spending more police time attempting to prosecute weak cases means that less attention is given to more serious cases.

This becomes even more complicated by the fact that what constitutes rape seems to be confusing. Supporters of consent classes and ‘affirmative consent’ argue that anything which isn’t prefaced with an ‘enthusiastic Yes’ can constitute rape. Activists talk of a ‘rape culture’, which sees ‘rapey’ behaviour as a precursor to actual incidents of rape. Others disagree, arguing that rape is a violent crime that should be seen as separate to the sometimes messy, grey areas of sexual interaction.

It seems we have a system which is criticised for not being active enough in its support for victims, and for being too focused on believing the victim. Do we need to reform our rape laws? Or is the politicisation of rape threatening to hamper the pursuit of justice?